Child Gangs and Motherly Duty at the Onset of Revolution

By Julia M. Gossard

At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, a concerned Parisian published a pamphlet warning mothers about the dangers of gang violence.  The advisory explained that gangs of patriotic children brandished “spears, axes, and strong pieces of wood” to act out battles on the Champs-Elysées. [1]  These “little troops,” as the author calls them, remain an understudied section of crowd violence and mobilization at the onset of revolution.  With the storming of the Bastille and the riots that ensued, many young men who had long been overlooked because of their social status, profession, and lack of wealth finally felt recognized and powerful.  But with this newfound power came violence veiled as patriotism.  Revolutionary zeal spurred the creation of child gangs that fought in the streets in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity.[1]

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The author of “Danger des Patrouilles exercées par les Enfants,” although anonymous, clearly supported the Revolution, as they applauded parents, especially mothers, for encouraging children to be patriotic.[2]  The pamphleteer insisted that mothers had to teach their children to be vigilant against counter-revolutionaries, but not to incite violence.  The danger, however, was that child gangs could not properly combat anti-patriotic sentiment.  Without proper military discipline, child gangs were injurious to the overall revolutionary movement.  Child gang demonstrations were, therefore, merely for show, but they performed their patriotism with very real weapons. 

The overall spirit of these gangs was not the problem.  The dangers of allowing children to have weapons was.  The child “troops,” as the author called them, resulted in numerous casualties.  For example, in the Saint-Saveur neighborhood, a child maimed another with an iron axe, causing the child to lose an eye. Foreshadowing the bloody period of the Terror, the pamphlet cautioned parents about letting children embrace these types of aggressive activities.  If they encouraged them now, the future would only be full of more violence and injury.  Mothers should, instead, encourage their children to be “patient, kind, and obedient of military discipline.” Echoing discussions of public education, the pamphlet insisted that “childhood is not a time when one should learn to win or to die, it is the moment when one should take up a moral education.” The Revolution could not survive with “injured children with broken arms and legs, a cutoff ear, or slashed faces.” The pamphlet revealed that though children were caught up in the revolutionary fervor that encapsulated Paris, childhood was intended to be a time of innocence, when children were to be nurtured and educated, not thrown into the streets with arms. Parents could foster patriotic sentiments but also safeguard their children from the dangerous realities of revolutionary movements.

In addition to disclosing the pervasiveness of violence at the start of the revolution, even among children, this pamphlet also displayed the gendered assumptions regarding child rearing and parenting at the end of the eighteenth century. Although this pamphlet first called to both mothers and fathers, the primary audience for this piece is mothers.  Repeatedly, the author implored mothers to protect their sons by asserting their authority. The pamphlet insisted that it was the mother’s duty to look after, protect, and forbid her children from engaging in any dangerous activity.  Blame for the countless injured children lay with neglectful mothers “who ignore[d]” their children’s licentious activity.  The pamphlet suggested that many mothers even went so far as to encourage their children to run in the streets as part of these “little troops,” taking no notice that their children “brandish[ed] offensive weapons including spears, swords, metal sabers, and axes.”[3] These bad mothers failed to fulfill their natural, gendered duties to protect and educate their children in proper conduct, behavior, and, in revolutionary Paris, patriotism.

The pamphlet’s pleas to mothers to cease gang violence should sound familiar to the twenty-first-century reader. Countless articles have been written to mothers of children in Chicago’s South Side, east London, Paris’ suburbs, and Los Angeles, begging them to teach their children gang membership is dangerous, even fatal.[4] Although these modern articles tend not to blame mothers per se, they do suggest that motherly intervention in the form of more attentive schedules, after-school programs, and quality time with children can dissuade children from the lure of gang membership.  The history of gang membership and motherly duty, then, is a long one. 

These motherly duties and the pamphleteer’s calls also resemble the early American  ideal of “Republican Motherhood.” Eighteenth and nineteenth-century American mothers were supposed to receive an education in reading, writing, arithmetic, and civics in order to teach their sons virtue and morality in an effort to raise ideal citizens. The pamphleteer believed that French revolutionary women should do the same.  A note at the end of the pamphlet suggests that mothers read the warning aloud to their children.  This presumes that mothers could, in fact, read. Perhaps the children in question were from the upper middling sorts where women had higher rates of literacy.  But, the pamphlet did not explicitly reveal from what section of society these gangsters came. Instead, the note seems to make its own implicit call – that mothers should be literate.  If mothers taught their children civility, morality, and proper behavior, it involved reading the latest parenting manuals and pamphlets. By directly addressing and appealing to mothers (and not to fathers or children themselves), this pamphlet highlighted how child rearing and parenting were motherly responsibilities in revolutionary France.

This short pamphlet managed to foreshadow many events of the Revolution.  The author warned that patriotic mob violence, especially when practiced by children, would lead to nothing but casualties and chaos.  Unaware that the most bloody and violent period of the Revolution was just on the horizon, they encouraged children to be patriotic and to gain a moral, civic education based on discussion instead of brute force.  In the years following, revolutionary leaders discussed the importance of civic inculcation, arguing it was paramount to the survival of the Republic.  Additionally, they affirmed that mothers were children’s primary caretakers, although they also insinuated that mothers would hold an even larger responsibility in the eventual post-Revolutionary period.  Mothers would have to provide guidance and education to the next generation of citizens.  Furthermore, the pamphlet reveals the long history of gang violence, intense inculcation of identity through gangs, and mothers’ responsibilities for their children’s behavior. 

Julia M Gossard is an Assistant Professor of History and Distinguished Assistant Professor of Honors Education at Utah State University. Julia researches the history of childhood and youth in eighteenth-century France.  At Utah State University, she teaches courses on comparative Atlantic revolutions, early modern and modern European history, and gender, sexuality, and the family. More about her research and teaching can be found on her website: juliamgossard.com. You can also Tweet her @jmgossard.

Title imageLa Constitution française : [estampe] / [L. Le Coeur], 1791-2.

Endnotes: 

[1] “Danger des Patrouilles exercées par les Enfants,” 1789 in Newberry Library’s French Revolution Pamphlet Collection, FRC 2651. 

[2] Since the author is anonymous, there is no way of knowing for certain if this person was male or female.  In order to avoid jumping to conclusions, I’ve chosen to use “they.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] See stories from ChicagoLondonParis, and Los Angeles

Further Reading:

Andress, David. Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. Boydell Press, 2000.

Linton, Marissa. Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Lucas, Colin. “Revolutionary Violence, the People, and the Terror” in Keith Baker (ed.), The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. Pergamon Press, 1988.

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